Navin Raheja


Stories on Wildlife

BANDHAVGARH: A mystic blend of mythology and nature

Sita..Charger...B1...B2...B3...Bokha...These magical names, and the images which they created in mind, was all I was aware of when the Kalinga Utkal Express came to a grinding halt at Umaria Railway Station. Salim Khan, my trusted lieutenant who had come to pick me up at the platform, almost read my mind. "Sir", he whispered in my ears "B2 was spotted last evening near Bari Gufa." I smiled at him. Bandhavgarh National Park, my destination, was just 32 kilometres away.

Both Sita and Charger have been the most famous- and photographed- tigers anywhere in the country. The two have long faded into the mist of time, but the mere mention of their names is enough to electrify any wildlife conversation in and around Bandhavgarh. It's the magic they still carry with them...Even so many years after their death. "How many humans, even the so-called celebrities and VIPs, can command this kind of remembrance and respect after their departure?" I asked myself while getting down at the forest rest house of Bandhavgarh.

Bandhavgarh is a balm to the aching eyes any month of the year. One of the best managed national parks in India, it is also one of the best places to see tigers. A common saying in Bandhavgarh is, "You are really lucky if you spot a tiger in other national parks of the country. And you are really unlucky if you do not spot a tiger in Bandhavgarh!"

Tigers I have encountered aplenty in Bandhavgarh during my numerous visits here in the past three decades. Today, I would like to draw attention to other marvels of Bandhavgarh, things and beings which the mighty tiger often overshadows.

The Chakradhara area of Bandhavgarh is home to some 75 species of butterflies. Excepting Western Ghats, this must be the place having one of the highest density of butterflies in India. So next time you are waiting impatiently for a tiger at Chakradhara grassland, please pay attention to these magnificent "flying jewels", as the ancient Greeks called them. I assure you it will be a time well spent.

The park also offers three different kinds of vultures: long-billed, read-headed and Egyptian. While vultures are dying out in other parts of the country, triggering panic among environmentalists, here in Bandhavgarh they are flourishing...A sure sign that the ecological balance of Bandhavgarh still remains intact. In fact, there is even a place called "Vulture Point", situated near the fort on top of Bandhavgarh's highest hill. From here, you can see dozens of vultures circling below you!!! ¬ In all other places, one normally has to look up to spot a vulture. Amazing, isn't it?

Bandhavgarh has several such nuggets for the connoisseur....

...And then, there are the caves. Thirty nine in all, these caves which are sprinkled all over the Tala range of the national park- and a few in other zones- remain an unsolved mystery to this day. Who build these caves? And when? Were they meant to be used as night-shelters for wandering Buddhist monks, or did they serve any other purpose?

Archaeologists have failed to provide an answer, but so what. The fact is, Bandhavgarh's charm gets multiplied by these caves. And would it be too preposterous to assume that Rudyard Kipling- who did travel extensively in the forests of Madhya Pradesh at the turn of the last century- came upon Maugli, the celebrity wolf-child of Jungle Books, in one of these caves? Who knows?!

The walls of Bandhavgarh fort, perched atop the Bandhav Hill, can be seen from any corner of the Tala Range. Tigers often wonder into the fort premises and the uphill drive from Bari Gufa (the big cave) to the Fort is an exhilarating experience, to say the least. And what a colourful history this fort has had!

Nobody - not even archaeologists - know when the fort was actually constructed. But if finds mention in 'Shiv Purana' and 'Narad Panch Ratra', so it's safe to assume that it must be 2,000 year old, at least. Legend has it that Lord Rama, who came here after conquering Lanka, got the fort built for his brother Laxman…Hence the name, Bandhavgarh (which means brother's fort). The fort's recorded history can be traced to 1st century BC..The fort has been ruled by several dynasties: Mauryans, from 3rd century BC, Vakataka, from 3rd to 5th century AD, followed by Sengars and then Kalachuris from 10th century AD. The Baghels ruled it from 10th century to 1617, when Maharaja Vikramaditya Singh moved out- alongwith his army and the entire population of the fort- to Rewa.

With the exit of human royalty, the real royalty took over Bandhavgarh...I mean the tiger. It is no mean achievement for the national park that its Tala Range today has the highest density of tigers in the country! Their roar of contentment can be heard along the 32 hills which encircle the biggest Bandhav Hill, in the verdant, green valleys and amidst the sal trees and bamboo thickets. Welcome to Bandhavgarh, ladies and gentlemen.

In my forthcoming travelogues and photo-features, I will take you along some of the best, beautiful and breathtaking natural spots in India. The places which are best approached by a train.